Food Photography 101: The Fundamentals

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I'm your food photography guru sharing photography tips, equipment ideas and business advice to help you improve your photography skills and strengthen your business mindset.

Hey, I'm Regan.

Welcome to Food Photography 101! Taking pictures of food has never been easier. But, when it comes to taking really good pictures of food, it’s not quite as easy to do no matter what camera you’re using. If you want to improve your food images, it’s important to go back to the basics and learn the fundamentals of food photography. Learning the fundamentals will pull you from the “point and shoot” mentality and help you plan ahead, which is ultimately the first step to improving your images.

This post contains affiliate links. Read the affiliate disclosure.

food photography fundamentals

Food Photography 101: The Creative Side

There are two sides to the fundamentals of food photography: the creative side and the technical side. A lot of people get hung up on the technical side, which is understandable. Photography requires gear and it’s important to know how to use your gear.

But, the truth is, the creative side plays the leading role in your food photography. The technical side is just there to support the creative. When you take the time to figure out the creative side first, the technical decisions will fall into place to help you create that look.

The creative fundamentals include:

  • CREATIVE VISION
  • FOOD STYLING
  • PROPS & SURFACES
  • COMPOSITION

Creative Vision

What do you want your images to look like and what is your shot list?

The very first step when thinking about food photography ideas is to figure out what you want your images to look like and to create your shot list.

A good exercise to help you figure this out is to find images that inspire you. What is it about them that you like? What is about them that you don’t like? Do you prefer light and airy food images or dark and moody food images? Do you like seeing images that are more polished and perfect or more rustic and natural? Your creative vision will depend on what food you’re shooting and the story you’re trying to tell about it.

HOW TO PLAN AHEAD

A great way to plan ahead for your creative vision is to create mood boards and write out your shot list. Create mood boards by collecting a variety of images that represent the look you’re going for. Writing out your shot list ensures that you don’t miss a specific type of shot you want to get.

Food Styling

How will you plate the food to highlight the details?

Something to keep in mind is, food photography and food styling go hand-in-hand. If the food doesn’t look good, the image won’t look good. If the food looks good, but is shot poorly, the image won’t look good.

Also, just because you know how to cook, doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to style and plate food for the camera. It definitely takes some practice unless you’re working with a food stylist or a chef during your shoot.

Figuring out the food styling approach really depends on what food you’ll be working with. Many foods have different personalities when it comes to plating, how it reacts to heat and how long it can sit before it starts looking not-so-great. 😉 For me, burgers and sandwiches are the hardest to style due to all the layers involved. The only way to really get to know your food is to get your hands dirty in the kitchen and start working with it.

HOW TO PLAN AHEAD

The way to plan ahead for your food styling is to add notes to your shot list so you can prioritize your shot list in an order that makes sense for the food. Also, be sure to have some food styling tools on hand to help you so you don’t always have to use your hands.

READ MORE ABOUT: FOOD STYING TOOLS EVERY FOOD PHOTOGRAPHER SHOULD HAVE

Props & Surfaces

What props and surfaces do you need to bring your creative vision to life?

After the creative vision and food styling is clear, figuring out your food photography props and surfaces is a fun next step. Props are your plates, bowls, linens and glassware. Surfaces sit beneath the food or behind it as a backdrop.

PROPS

When it comes to what props to get for your shoot, think about your creative vision. Do you need darker props? Or, more colorful ones? Maybe you want the props to be neutral? Remember, the props are there to support the creative vision. They should not distract from the food.

SURFACES

When it comes to choosing your surfaces, refer to your mood boards for your creative vision. If you know you want to shoot a dark and moody look, you will want to look for darker surfaces to help bring that mood to life. If you are shooting a fresh and bright look, you may want to use brighter, more colorful surfaces.

Some vendors I love for durable, beautiful surfaces are:

However, a cheaper way to get started is to get 20×30 foam boards on Amazon. You can get black, white or a variety of colors. Just keep in mind that they’re not super durable and get ruined pretty quickly, but they are a fun, inexpensive place to start.

HOW TO PLAN AHEAD

The best way to plan ahead for sourcing your props and surfaces is to be sure you have the time you need to get everything that you’ll need.

Composition

How will you arrange elements in the frame to create visual interest? What angles will work best for the food? What orientation do you need to shoot at?

Food photography composition is how you arrange your food and props in the frame.

Composition definitely requires some practice. When you are first getting started, it can be helpful to consider using the Rule of Thirds. This is basically a grid composed of nine squares and four grid lines.

By positioning your elements along the grid lines, it can help you create a nicely balanced composition. And, where the grid lines intersect is where you could consider placing the points of interest of your image. Experiment a bit and see what works and what doesn’t. The grid can appear on your camera’s screen (within menu settings) or in the editing software you are using.

When thinking about your composition you’ll want to consider two things:

  • What angle(s) will best represent the food?
  • What orientation will you need to shoot at?

ANGLES

There are three very popular angles in food photography are straight on, 3/4 angle and overhead (also known as a flat lay shot). For example, foods like burgers will shoot beautifully straight on whereas foods like soups will shoot beautifully overhead. Consider the angles that will best represent the food.

ORIENTATION

You’ll also want to consider whether you’ll be shooting vertical or horizontal images. A good question to ask yourself is where are you sharing these images? Certain types of media require vertical images and others require horizontal images. For example, a website homepage would require a horizontal image whereas an Instagram reel would require a vertical image.

HOW TO PLAN AHEAD

Add composition notes to your shot list so you can position your camera accordingly.

READ MORE ABOUT: FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY COMPOSITION TIPS

Food Photography 101

Food Photography 101: The Technical Side

Figuring out the creative fundamentals first will help you figure out the technical fundamentals much easier. The technical fundamentals include:

  • CAMERA SETTINGS
  • LENSES
  • LIGHTING
  • EDITING

Camera Settings

What will your camera settings be for the best exposure?

No matter what camera you use, whether it’s a DSLR, mirrorless or iPhone camera, being able to adjust the camera’s exposure settings is important to achieve the look you want. Your camera’s exposure is controlled by the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

DSLR & MIRRORLESS CAMERAS

To adjust your DSLR or mirrorless camera settings, you have to set it to Manual Mode. I have a post that dives deeper into this below. My favorite part about this post is that it shares poorly exposed images and how to fix them. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re new to Manual Mode.

READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO SHOOT IN MANUAL MODE

iPHONE CAMERAS

If you’re shooting with an iPhone, you can control your camera settings through a free app called Lightroom Mobile. This app pretty much turns your iPhone into a mini DSLR, which is pretty awesome.

HOW TO ACCESS YOUR IPHONE CAMERA SETTINGS IN LIGHTROOM MOBILE

  1. When you launch LR Mobile, it will default to Auto in the lower left corner of your screen.
  2. Tap Auto and it will pull up a menu that offers another option called Professional.
  3. Select Professional.
  4. You’ll now have access to your iPhones camera settings.

READ MORE ABOUT: LIGHTROOM MOBILE FOR IPHONE FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

Lenses

What lenses will help you get different perspectives?

Lenses will play a big role in your food images too. Review your shot list for the types of shots you want to capture. Are you shooting a wide table-scape with lots of place settings and food? You may need a wide angle lens to capture it all in the frame. Are you wanting to get up close and personal with the details of the food? You may need a macro lens to get that close and still capture a nice, sharp image.

I have a blog post that shares more information about different lenses for DSLR’s, Mirrorless and iPhone cameras.

READ MORE ABOUT: THE BEST LENSES FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

Lighting

Are you shooting with natural light or artificial light? What light modifiers will you need?

We all know that light is instrumental in the food photography 101 fundamentals, but it’s not always easy to know how to work with it in the beginning. Lighting requires you to think about where your light source is coming from, how powerful it is and how to modify it to get the look you’re going for.

Based on your creative vision, are you wanting soft, even lighting or more direct light that creates strong shadows and contrast? Your lighting and camera settings work together to create the best exposure for your food images.

NATURAL LIGHT

Natural light is beautiful, but it can also be more limiting to work with for three reasons:

  1. First, if you’re using natural light, you have to set up by a window. If you want to adjust where your light is hitting your subject you have to physically move your subject (or your table).
  2. Second, natural light is always changing and you have to adjust your camera settings to accommodate that. This is why understanding how to shoot in Manual Mode is so important.
  3. Third, if you’re depending on the sun for your light, you are limited to daylight hours only, which isn’t much time during the winter months. This also poses a problem if you’re shooting in a restaurant without much natural light to work with.

When working around the challenges of natural light, I highly recommend having some diffusers, black foam board and white foam board on hand to help you modify and control the light as needed.

DIFFUSERS

Sometimes direct sunlight can be too harsh. A diffusor will help soften that light as it pours in through the window. Simply place it over your window and watch the light soften and spread out more evenly over the food.

BLACK FOAM BOARD

Black foam board can prevent unwanted light from hitting your food and also helps with emphasizing contrast and shadows. Play around with the placement of black foam boards and watch how it affects the light and shadows.

WHITE FOAM BOARD

White foam board well help bounce light back to an area of your food that may have become too dark. For example, if your window is on the left side of your food, the left side will be well lit. The right side, however, may get a little dark. If you place the white foam board on the right side of the food, you’ll see the light bounce back and add a little more light to brighten things up.

READ MORE ABOUT: NATURAL LIGHT FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

ARTIFICIAL LIGHT

Shooting with artificial light gives you a lot more control over your images for three reasons:

  1. If you need to move your light source, moving your light is a lot easier than moving your food or table.
  2. Your camera settings and the power of the light are consistent. Once you get your settings set, you really don’t need to adjust them during your shoot, unless you are purposely reconfiguring a new light setup.
  3. Your light won’t turn off until you tell it to, so you can shoot at any time of day.

Diffusers and foam boards are great light modifiers for both natural and artificial light. With artificial lights, however, you have even more options like umbrellas, soft boxes, gels and grids. You also have the control to adjust the power of the light so it’s not too bright or too dark.

However, because working with artificial light is a little more complex, I have a much more detailed blog post that walks you through how to get started with artificial lighting.

READ MORE ABOUT: GETTING STARTED WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS

Editing

How will you edit your images to bring them to their final form?

When it comes to Food Photography 101, editing is a big part of the process. Unfortunately, a lot of people neglect to explore it very much, if at all. Editing is truly the icing on the cake, because it brings your images to their final form. Without editing, your images can appear flat and incomplete.

Whether you’re shooting with a DSLR or an iPhone, there are endless capabilities when it comes to editing. Sometimes the slightest editing adjustments can go a long way and other times, you need to do more extensive editing to finalize your image(s).

Much like all of the fundamentals, editing takes practice as well. You’ll discover some really cool techniques and different ways to make some beautiful adjustments to your images.

COMPUTER EDITING SOFTWARE

If you’re editing on a computer, I recommend the following editing software:

  • LIGHTROOM
  • PHOTOSHOP
  • CAPTURE ONE

IPHONE EDITING APPS

If you’re editing with an iPhone, I recommend the following editing apps:

  • LIGHTROOM MOBILE
  • SNAPSEED
  • LENS DISTORTIONS

I hope this post demonstrated that there’s so much more to professional food photography than picking up a camera and taking a quick picture. Every now and then we get lucky, but luck isn’t something to rely on if you really want to improve your images. Planning ahead and exploring how each of the fundamentals play a role in your photo shoot will improve your food images significantly. Reach out with questions anytime!

Happy Shooting!

This post contains affiliate links which means if you click or make a purchase through my site, I might make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). I only promote products and equipment that I actually use and support. 

All images ©Regan Baroni 2022.

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